NEW YORK — Gilbert Rogin, who had an enviable run as a writer of droll short fiction for The New Yorker while building toward an impressive career as a top editor at Sports Illustrated and other magazines, died Nov. 4 at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 87.
Talented and idiosyncratic, Mr. Rogin was managing editor of Sports Illustrated for five years beginning in 1979, a stretch when the magazine was still dominant in sports journalism and ESPN was just a fledgling.
Before that, though, it seemed as if he might be on his way to a career as a fiction writer. The New Yorker published more than 30 of his stories beginning in 1963, humorous tales that often seemed at least somewhat autobiographical, and he had written several well-received books.
But in 1980 Roger Angell, the magazine’s fiction editor, rejected one of his submissions on the grounds — as Mr. Rogin later told the tale — that he was repeating himself. He stopped writing fiction entirely.
“Maybe I knew I’d exhausted the fiction vein,” he told Franz Lidz, one of his former Sports Illustrated reporters, in a 2010 interview for AARP the Magazine. “The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn’t write fiction again. Not a single word.”
Mr. Rogin grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Columbia College. In 1951 he began a brief stint at The New Yorker as an office gofer; his assignment on his second day on the job was to bring a suit of clothes to a funeral home for Harold Ross to be laid out in. Ross, the magazine’s founding editor, had just died.
In 1955, after two years in the Army, Mr. Rogin joined Sports Illustrated, which Time Inc. had begun the year before. His job was to clip articles from newspapers and the wire services for filing in the magazine’s library, but he began writing almost immediately, and soon was a reporter.
He became known for elegant phrasing and carefully observed profiles of figures like boxer Floyd Patterson and basketball star Bill Russell. In 2014, when the magazine commemorated its 60th anniversary by republishing 60 of its best articles, one by Mr. Rogin was among them: “12 Days Before the Mast,” his account of participating in a sailing race from California to Hawaii aboard a 55-foot yawl. Not a sailing fan, he found the experience underwhelming.
“It was a numbing, embittering and largely useless 12 days,” he wrote. “There was no plot, no suspense. Our progress was as lacking in memorable incident as the passage of an hour hand across the face of a clock. We proved only that a curving, erratic line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
When not on assignment for Sports Illustrated, Mr. Rogin began writing short fiction. The New Yorker published his first story, “Ernest Observes,” in 1963, and they came regularly after that, right up through “The Hard Parts” in November 1978. More appeared in other magazines.
A story collection, “The Fencing Master,” came out in 1965, and in 1971 Mr. Rogin published his first novel, “What Happens Next?” The poet L.E. Sissman, reviewing that book in The New York Times, called it “a novel of the first importance.”
A second novel, “Preparations for the Ascent,” thematically related to the first, came in 1980. In 2010 the two novels were reissued by Verse Chorus Press as a single volume. Jay Jennings, in the introduction to that republication, wrote of the similarities that run through much of Mr. Rogin’s funny, understated fiction.
“The protagonist,” Jennings wrote, “no matter the name, is a (presumably autobiographical) middle-aged, Jewish, Manhattanite male, a magazine writer of eclectic intellectual interests and eccentric habits.”
As to why Mr. Rogin’s fiction, whose admirers included John Updike, had been largely forgotten, Jennings speculated that oversaturation might have played a part.
‘You didn’t feel like your fingers were being chopped off the way it was with some other editors. With Gil, it was like having a manicure.’
“He was writing at the very apex of the market for protagonists who were middle-aged, Jewish, Manhattanite male intellectuals/writers and musers,” Jennings wrote. “The ur-text in this genre is Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ (1964), with cohorts Mailer, Malamud and others doing variations on the theme.”
Mr. Rogin’s shift away from fiction coincided with his rise to the top editing spot at Sports Illustrated, where his eccentric style alienated some writers — Dan Jenkins was one — but was embraced by others.
“He’d make his changes with a touch so light that you could only nod appreciatively,” Jerry Kirshenbaum, a writer and editor at the magazine for 30 years, wrote in an e-mail. “You didn’t feel like your fingers were being chopped off the way it was with some other editors. With Gil, it was like having a manicure.”
Mr. Rogin was adept and versatile enough that, in 1984, Time moved him — despite his reluctance — to Discover, its struggling science magazine, which he helped stabilize. In 1986 it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence. In 1987 Mr. Rogin became corporate editor, the No. 3 editing position in the Time Inc. empire.